Music: Billy Joel

Sing us a song tonight.

I am the entertainer
And I know just where I stand.
—"The Entertainer"

William Martin Joel, better known as Billy Joel (May 9, 1949-), is an American singer-songwriter, musician, and classical composer. He is the third best-selling solo artist in the United States with thirty-three top forty hits and six Grammy Awards to his name. As his 1973 breakout hit "Piano Man" implies, he is a quite skilled piano player, and many of his most famous songs have strong keyboard elements.

His discography has a wide range of styles include schmaltzy soft-rock love songs that perhaps reveal Too Much Information about his relationships (especially that with ex-wife Christie Brinkley), tributes to 1950s artists and stylings, attempts at working class rock comparable to Bruce Springsteen, jazzy ruminations on fame, religion, substance abuse (something he has experience in), or his hometown of New York City, bluesy piano numbers, and pure classical compositions. Said range contributed to the formation of Movin' Out, one of the first and best known examples of the Jukebox Musical. He is also known for voicing Dodger in the Disney animated film Oliver & Company.

Joel has mostly retired from pop songwriting and recording, but he still tours occasionally, sometimes with close friend Elton John. He is currently the "artist-in-residence" at Madison Square Garden.

References to his songs come up in pop culture quite a bit: among them a second season episode of American Idol had the contestants singing songs from his catalog, he's been the musical guest on four episodes of Saturday Night Live, an entire episode of Freaks and Geeks was dedicated to his music (and surprisingly, kept all of it for the DVD), and a classic Sesame Street skit has him serenading Oscar the Grouch along with Marlee Matlin.

Not to be confused with Billie Joe, Billie Jo, or Billy Idol.

Discography

As part of other bands

Solo discography

Classical Albums

  • Fantasies & Delusions (2001)

"Sing us a trope, you're the piano man, sing us a trope tonight":

  • Apocalypse How: "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)", seems to be an example of Class 0.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: "We Didn't Start the Fire" is full of these. One example:
    Foreign debts, homeless vets,
    AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz.
    I was stranded in the combat zone,
    I walked through Bedford Stuy alone,
    Even rode my motorcycle in the rain.
  • As Long as It Sounds Foreign: The song "Don't Ask Me Why" inexplicably drops: "Parlez-vous franšais?" ("Do you speak French?") for no other reason than it rhymes with the word "away".
    Yesterday you were an only child
    Now your ghosts have gone away
    Oh, you can kill them in the classic style
    Now you parlez-vous franšais.
  • Audience Participation Song: Joel's performances of "Piano Man" these days tend to consist of him pointing the microphone at the crowd and letting them sing the entire song.
  • Author Avatar: Averted in "The Ballad of Billy the Kid." According to Joel, the Billy from Oyster Bay was a bartender named Billy he knew from his Long Island days.
  • Ballad of X: "The Ballad Of Billy The Kid".
  • Berserk Button: Infamously, "STOP LIGHTING THE AUDIENCE!" For context, this was during a show that he was playing behind the Iron Curtain in the former Soviet Union. During the show, the Secret Police used the lighting to pick out rowdy audience members, essentially making them afraid to show any hint of having fun. Quoth Billy later of the incident, "I didn't throw a tantrum, I threw a piano."
    • In a sense, his irritation with having been compared with fellow piano-based singer-songwriter (and future touring partner) Elton John in The '70s may also count, as he felt he had his own sound and style, and record executives tried to push him towards an Elton-like sound early in his career. Early, unsuccessful attempts to record Turnstiles saw Columbia Records set him up to record with Elton's "classic" band (Davey Johnstone, Dee Murray, and Nigel Olsson).
  • Big Applesauce: In addition to being from the Bronx, his songs are sprinkled with geography references from New York City and the surrounding Tri-State Area metropolis.
  • Bookends: The fade-out of "Where's the Orchestra?", the final song on The Nylon Curtain, contains an instrumental snippet of the main melody of "Allentown", the album's first song.
    • Similarly, the ending of The Stranger is entitled "Everybody Has A Dream/The Stranger (Reprise)" because that song ends with a repeat of the opening strains of "The Stranger".
  • Briefer Than They Think: Joel has been in the music business for over 40 years, yet has produced only 12 studio albums as a solo artist.
  • Brutal Honesty/"The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Big Shot", "Pressure" and "Everybody Loves You Now".
  • By the Eyes of the Blind: Referenced word-for-word in "River of Dreams".
  • Call-and-Response Song: "It's Still Rock and Roll to Me."
  • Calling Your Attacks: In the song "A Room of Our Own" off The Nylon Curtain, following the second chorus, Billy calls out "Bridge!" just before the bridge begins.
  • The Cameo: Rodney Dangerfield appears in the "Tell Her About It" video.
    • Richard Pryor, Joe Piscopo and Christie Brinkley make appearances in the video for "Keeping the Faith." Christie also cameos in "Uptown Girl."
  • Catholic Schoolgirls Rule: "Only The Good Die Young".
  • Concept Album: An Innocent Man consists entirely of pastiches of the music Joel grew up listening to. The most notable singles are the Ben E. King-flavored title track, the Four Seasons-esque "Uptown Girl", the Marley-influenced "Keeping The Faith", the Motown-style "Tell Her About It", and the a cappella doo-wop "For The Longest Time".
  • Darker and Edgier: Both Glass Houses and especially The Nylon Curtain are this compared to Joel's other albums.
  • A Date with Rosie Palms: One popular interpretation of "Captain Jack," though it's explicitly about being The Stoner. Being bored and masturbating is mentioned in the song, though.
    • "Sometimes a Fantasy", however, is not only a song about phone sex, but Joel even makes Immodest Orgasms. (The music video is squickier.)
  • Dead Air: Billy Joel invoked a live-performance version of this trope during the 1994 Grammy Award Show. The director of the show cut short Frank Sinatra's acceptance speech for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, and this pissed Joel off to the point that he stopped his performance of "The River of Dreams" in the middle. He sat there, grinning at the audience, while pretending to check his watch, and quipped, "Valuable advertising time is passing by." After wasting around 30 seconds, he resumed playing the song.
    • In concert, he still tends to extend the middle of the song (which had a natural pause in the first place) as a reminder of the stunt.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Billy is this in many songs.
    • That side of him comes out in recent live performances, and in spades during his songwriting seminars, if the Q+A videos posted on his website are any indication. Also comes with a fair amount of Self-Deprecation.
  • Do Not Call Me Paul: Billy is not fond of being called "William,"note  and actually prefers "Bill" to "Billy".
  • Documentary: Last Play at Shea, which used his July 16th and 18th, 2008 concerts at the New York Mets' Shea Stadium, the last ones ever performed there before the building was demolished, as a launchpad for covering his career, the history of American suburbia on Long Island and of the Mets.
  • Dying Town: "Allentown".
  • Early Installment Weirdness: His short-lived heavy metal band Attila and their one self-titled album from 1970. Often listed as one of the worst LP's of all time and disowned by Joel.
  • Echoing Acoustics: "Miami 2017 (Seen the Light Go Out on Broadway)" has a weird reverb effect added to it.
    • As he mentions in his live album Songs in the Attic, the song "demands the gothic reverberation of a vast railroad terminus, such as Madison Square Garden." Apparently this is what they were aiming for on the original, and landed in the aural Uncanny Valley instead.
  • Epic Rocking: "Goodnight Saigon" (7:04), "Captain Jack" (7:15), and "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" (7:37), which feature an opening of helicopters, a building crescendo, and an interlude across three distinct sections, respectively.
    • The "Prelude" section of "Angry Young Man" is about two minutes going back and forth between five different tempos, including some of the fastest piano-playing you've ever heard.
  • Fake-Out Fade-Out: "You Picked a Real Bad Time"
  • Famous Last Words: "Famous Last Words"
  • Heavy Meta: "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me", "The Entertainer"
  • Genre Buster: If you had to classify it, you'd probably call it "piano-based rock and roll," but Joel's music has an extremely wide range of styles.
    • Genre Roulette: He's gone from pop to Southwestern funk to soul to Aaron Copland-like ballads to a classical music album. He even emulated The Beatles in the B side of the Nylon Curtain album. He also stated that "We Didn't Start the Fire" was going to be a rap song, but thought better against it.
    • The "Prelude" to "Angry Young Man" veers around several music styles before heading into the main song.
  • Genre Savvy: "Modern Woman" states that women today know all the tricks men use to get them in bed, so those methods won't work.
  • Glass-Shattering Sound: He hit a lot of very high notes on An Innocent Man, recorded when he was arguably at the peak of his vocal powers. He later explained that he felt he'd never be able to get that high again, so he decided to go all out on this album. Indeed, by his next album, The Bridge, his voice was noticeably deeper.
  • Gratuitous French: "C'Etait Toi" has an entire section sung only in French.
  • Homage: All the songs on An Innocent Man are In the Style of... songs from the '50s and '60s. "Uptown Girl" was Frankie Valli, "For The Longest Time" was a quickened doo-wop style, and "An Innocent Man" was Ben E. King and the Drifters.
  • "I Want" Song: "Easy Money".
  • Identical Stranger: Bore a surprising resemblance to Lou Reed in The '70s.
  • Intercourse with You:
    • "Only the Good Die Young", though subverted - the singer fails to seduce Virginia.
    • "Sometimes a Fantasy", over the phone
  • Just the Way You Are: Trope Namer
  • Karma Houdini: "Surprises". Joel tells the listener not to worry - whatever horrible thing they just did (which is never revealed) won't be a problem, with the help of a little destruction of the evidence.
  • Let's Duet: Cyndi Lauper in "Code of Silence", Ray Charles in "Baby Grand".
  • Life of the Party: "Big Shot" is based on the darker version of this trope.
  • Lighter and Softer: An Innocent Man compared to the two albums that preceded it.
  • List Song: "We Didn't Start The Fire"
  • Lonely at the Top: ''Everybody Loves You Now."
    Oh loneliness will get to you somehow
    but everybody loves you now
  • Lonely Together: "Piano Man" provides that page's quote.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Extremely frequent. Notable examples include "Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)", "You're Only Human (Second Wind)", "The Entertainer", and "Allentown".
  • Manipulative Bitch: "Laura" (with a healthy dollop of Passive-Aggressive Kombat) and "All Just a Woman". "Stilleto" is the rare case in which the protagonist knows she's one, but enjoys it.
  • Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness: Rarely (if ever) goes beyond 4.
  • Money Song: "Easy Money", from the Rodney Dangerfield movie of the same name.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Played with in "Surprises".
  • Non-Appearing Title: "Summer Highland Falls," "Goodnight Saigon," "Scenes From An Italian Restaurant," "Travelin' Prayer." "Famous Last Words" is close, as the line is "These are the last words I have to say" (which was true, as it was the last song on his last studio album that had lyrics.)
  • Nostalgia Filter:
    • The entire reason behind "We Didn't Start the Fire". According to Joel, he was tired of younger people talking about how what a mess the present was, and how idyllic it was in the 50's and 60's, and his having to mention, "Well, this happened and that happened..."
    • Averted in "The Great Suburban Showdown", in which he points out the mild hypocrisy of family reunions, and how some family members desperately cling to the past.
  • Not So Different: "Leningrad", where he details his friendship between himself and a Russian clown he met while touring the Soviet Union. (The song was written during the Cold War.)
  • Obsession Song: "All For Leyna". The narrator has a one night stand with the eponymous woman, and declares:
    I don't wanna eat, I don't wanna sleep, I only want Leyna one more time.
  • Odd Couple: Joel and his former wife Christie Brinkley
  • Power of Trust: "Honesty" is practically the musical Trope Codifier.
  • Precision F-Strike: Billy swears quite a bit in interviews and concerts, but his songwriting is mostly clean. An exception is "Laura" from the album The Nylon Curtain, the only song in Joel's entire oeuvre to contain an F-bomb.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot of "Piano Man". He was supporting himself by playing in a piano bar while waiting out a bad record deal and thought no one would believe his story, so he wrote a song about it. Everyone in the song is based on a real person.
    • An Innocent Man, an upbeat and nostalgic album reflected Billy's bachelorhood and newfound romances with Christie Brinkley and Elle MacPherson. River Of Dreams reflected Billy and Christie's marital woes and eventual divorce, along with Billy's legal issues (his ex-brother-in-law, who managed Billy's finances, was found to have cheated him for millions of dollars).
  • Real Song Theme Tune: "My Life" for Bosom Buddies and "You May Be Right" for Dave's World
  • "The Reason You Suck" Song: A few, but highlighted by "Big Shot".
  • Refrain from Assuming: It's "River of Dreams" not "In The Middle Of The Night".
    • Similarly, it's "Summer, Highland Falls" not "Sadness or Euphoria".
    • "Goodnight Saigon" is not called "We Will All Go Down Together".
  • Renaissance Man: Well, only in a musical sense, but Billy Joel's songs do span a wide range of genres and sounds.
  • Rock Me, Amadeus!: "This Night" is based on the second movement of Ludwig van Beethoven's "Pathetique". Makes sense, since he has cited Beethoven as one of his biggest influences.
  • Rock Star Song: "The Entertainer", "Everybody Loves You Now".
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: "The Longest Time", "Through the Long Night", "Until the Night".
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: Pressure.
    All your life is Channel 13, Sesame Street
    What does it mean?
  • Single Stanza Song: "Souvenir".
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Nearly all of his songs are on the cynicism side ("Pressure" being the most cynical), which makes his idealistic songs, such as "New York State of Mind" and "Scenes From an Italian Restaruant", stand out.
  • Something Something Leonard Bernstein: "We Didn't Start The Fire," which has often been accused of being a rip-off of the Trope Namer, REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," as a result.note 
  • The Something Song: "Weekend Song"
  • The Stoner: "Captain Jack", perhaps the most accurate deconstruction of the life of a college stoner.
  • Stop and Go: "River of Dreams"
  • A Storm Is Coming: The opening line of the chorus to "Storm Front" is "There's a storm front coming".
  • Surreal Music Video: "Pressure", an early example from 1982 directed by Russell Mulcahy.
  • Take That: Before he played a concert in St. Louis on the Stranger tour, Billy received a death threat from a Catholic group regarding the content of the song "Only The Good Die Young." He responded by playing it five times that night.
    • "Getting Closer" from The Bridge is one to his first manager Artie Ripp. "The Great Wall Of China" from River Of Dreams is one to Frank Weber, his ex-brother in law who replaced Ripp as his manager. Both were caught swindling Billy of his money at various times in his career.
  • Take That, Critics!: Early in his career, Billy had a habit of tearing up newspapers that had given him bad reviews during his live concerts.
    • Billy called out a critic who had been polite when they met, yet went on to bash the artist's work in his article, believing it would not actually be read by Joel. Billy still invited the critic to attend his show, yet suggested he wear a hockey mask for his own protection.
    • "It's Still Rock and Roll To Me" takes a jab at how music critics try to tell people who's worth listening to: "There's a new band in town, but you can't get the sound from a story in a magazine aimed at your average teen." Soon afterwards, a Rolling Stone poll voted it "the worst song about rock and roll ever."
  • Tempting Fate: In "Modern Woman", the protagonist asks, "And after 1986, what else could be new?" three years before the start of The Great Politics Mess-Up. Then Billy penned "We Didn't Start the Fire" which, by his own description, was pretty much a chronicle of the Cold War (and included the line, "What else do I have to say?", albeit not meant literally). The imminent political upheavals in 1989 made Billy want to hurry up and release Storm Front ASAP, for risk of History Marches On.
  • That's All, Folks!: River of Dreams.
  • Title Only Chorus: PRESSURE
  • Title Theme Tune: Easy Money.
  • Trash the Set: At the end of the "She's Right On Time" video.
  • Tuckerization: "The Downeaster Alexa", featuring a sailboat named after his daughter.
  • Twenty Minutes into the Future: "Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway)", recorded in 1976.
  • Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: A mild example, but when during his marriage with Christie Brinkley, he was somewhat self conscious about being married to a beautiful supermodel and wondered why she would be interested in someone like him.
  • Uptown Girl: Trope Namer. The song was a tribute to his then wife, Christie Brinkley.
  • Vocal Evolution: An enforced one: his performance at The Concert For New York City, which he did against doctor's orders, caused a blood vesicle to burst in his throat which drastically deepened his voice and forced him to transpose all of his songs a half-step lower to accommodate this.
  • We Didn't Start the Billy Joel Parodies: A list of the innumerable parodies of Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire".
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: The lyrics of "Pressure" are addressed to this kind of person.
    I'm sure you have some cosmic rationale. But here you are with your faith and your Peter Pan advice. You have no scars on your face and you cannot handle pressure.
  • Your Cheating Heart/Stranger Behind the Mask: "The Stranger"